The road often traveled

If they aren’t Kingston residents, the hours a professor spends traveling can take a toll on their family life

For students who miss home, a weekend trip back to cities like Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, are short, providing only a tease of the comforts of home.

But professors living out of town also face the implications of commuting, whether out of necessity or personal choice, and the consequent impact on their life.

Four out of 28 faculty members in the English department alone commute and live in another city. On a typical work day, Scott-Morgan Straker is a six-hour commute away from his children.

His daughter will finish her dance routine and look out at the audience, remembering her father isn’t there — he isn’t even in the same city.

“There’s certain commitments I can’t miss at work … even though I’m doing all this traveling to be with [my family], there’s still absolutely things I have to miss,” Straker, Undergraduate Chair and professor in the English department, said.

Missing out on these parental experiences unfortunately happens more often than not for Straker, who commutes from Kitchener to Kingston two or three days a week.

“Either I spend more time going back and forth, but I get to be with my family as much as possible, or I spend more time in Kingston and I’m not around to be with them,” he said.

In the past, he arranged and attempted many living arrangements; for one year, the couple lived in their respective university towns — Straker in Kingston and his wife in Kitchener — but they didn’t see each other much.

To rectify the problem, he explained, they lived in Toronto for a few years and commuted to their respective universities.

“We realized there’s no point in being married to each other if we can’t actually spend time together,” he said.

Throwing kids into the equation prompted a new living arrangement. A coin flip determined their next big move. His wife won, so they were moving to Kitchener — that was 11 years ago.

“If you add up all the traveling, it takes me about 12 hours of travel for the sake of about five or six hours in Kingston, so it makes for a really long day,” Straker said.

Straker said that he and his wife often arrange to have opposite teaching schedules in order to be around for their children.

That doesn’t always work though, he said. They have extensive arrangements for babysitting when both parents have to be away.

“When the kids were younger we had complicated daycare arrangements. Half-day kindergarten was a nightmare,” he said.

Straker said the English department makes accommodations, scheduling his classes in the afternoon. While a few of his colleagues commute from Toronto, he confirmed that his commute is the longest.

“I’ve been very, very lucky, but I’ve heard from colleagues … that not all departments are as accommodating,” he said.

When meetings occur on days that he doesn’t have class, Straker often stays at a bed and breakfast overnight. He said that this is a lot more cost-effective than a hotel or maintaining a secondary residence in Kingston.

“I had to meet my commitments to the department and that included committee meetings,” he said. “So if I have a committee meeting on a day I would be out of town, well, tough luck I just have to stay overnight.”

He said in the past, he has split apartments with faculty members who have a commuting schedule opposite to him, but he’s found the bed and breakfast option involves “the least fuss.”

Straker said he wouldn’t recommend a commuting lifestyle to anyone, citing the exhaustion and large expenses for travel and accommodation as his main reasons. Straker commutes by catching a bus from Kitchener to Toronto, and takes the train to Kingston from the city.

He said it’s particularly bad in the winter when the trains are delayed and the buses are slow.

“Every year, I say to my wife, ‘This is the last year. I can’t do this anymore’ … And then the next year comes around and what choice do I have?” he said.

Both he and his wife enjoy their work, however, and asking either of them to sacrifice their career would be out of the question, Straker said.

People are increasingly establishing relationships with other professionals, he explained, where both spouses are in the workforce.

“This way of living has become more common, certainly among the academic profession,” he said.

Others, like adjunct professor of geography Philip Bonnaventure, commute out of necessity.

“[M]y wife was expecting a baby … I made the decision basically to stay in Ottawa where we were established at that point,” Bonnaventure said.

He said that after finishing his postdoctoral fellowship at Queen’s, the department was looking for an adjunct professor to fill sabbatical and personal leaves relatively quickly. He imagined, however, that the position — and commute — would only be temporary.

“[M]y issue is the stability more than anything else. If I were a tenured-track position professor here at Queen’s, I would move here,” he said.

Bonnaventure said that, though he has a two-and-a-half year old daughter, he has a strong support system at home, where childcare is structured around his work schedule.

“Both a combination of my in-laws and my parents watch my daughter so we have a very weekly routine,” he said.

Bonnaventure, who is on contract as a commuting adjunct professor, has both his travel and accommodation expenses paid for him, but said that living in another city has impacted his leisure activities.

“It really does cut into your hobbies though, in the sense [that] it’s difficult to [do] things like physical fitness, things like skiing in the wintertime,” he said.

For some, like Asha Varadharajan, also a professor in the department of English, the decision to live in Toronto came after several years of living in Kingston, and a desire to live in a larger city.

As a result of being single, she said, the decision was solely dependent on her.

“I also had a stable community of friends [in Kingston],” Varadharajan said. “That has, from my perspective, been really important to avoid feeling like I’m living in limbo.”

Commuting offers a relaxing, if only temporary, respite, Varadharajan said, and allows these professors the opportunity to maximize their productivity by catching up on emails or marking.

“[T]raveling by train or bus actually gives us a chance to gather our thoughts … before we get into the hectic schedule of the week,” she said.

With committee meetings and graduate supervision work, which can span more than three days, Toronto also functions as a space to think without interruption, she said.

Preferring to stay overnight in Kingston, Varadharajan explained that she never makes the commute back and forth in a single day.

“I have to find ways of staying in Kingston — so sometimes I stay in a B&B, sometimes I stay with friends,” she said.

In addition to holding regular, on-campus office hours, both Varadharajan and Straker hold online office hours, using Skype as a way to ensure their students have access to them even when they’re off campus.

“I might stay later in the evening or I might come earlier in the morning, but it hasn’t been a problem,” she said.

Commuting often comes down to negotiating what is truly important, Varadharjan said, as tenure-track opportunities are often difficult to come by.

“It’s difficult for people to get jobs in the same place and people have to go where the money is,” she said, “but as a consequence we have to think more seriously about how … we’re going to create community and citizenship in the institution.”

Varadharajan, who has been commuting from Toronto to Kingston for about 10 years, admits the difficulty of maintaining a neat separation between teaching and other academic responsibilities; the move, however, has helped her detach herself when she’s in Toronto, where she primarily focuses on research.

She said that while on campus, she immerses herself in participating in the institution and teaching.

“So I think in my case it has produced a more healthy relationship between my work and my life,” she said. “So I can distinguish who I am from the work that I do. And, that’s been important to me.”

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.